Ranch hand Ricardo Madrigal feeds cattle on the Van Vleck Ranch in Rancho Murieta, California, in this February 12, 2014 file photo. Credit: Reuters/Max Whittaker/Files For decades, ranchers from the east have brought their livestock to California, where mild winters and lush natural pastures created prime conditions for fattening beef cattle.
No more. In the midst of the worst California drought in decades, the grass is stunted and some creeks are dry. Ranchers in the Golden State are loading tens of thousands of heifers and steers onto trucks and hauling them eastward to Nevada, Texas, Nebraska and beyond.
"If there's no water and no feed, you move the cows," said Gaylord Wright, 65, owner of California Fats and Feeders Inc. "You move them or they die."
The exact headcount for livestock on this cattle drive is not known. But a Reuters review of state agriculture department records filed when livestock cross state borders indicates that up to 100,000 California cattle have left the state in the past four months alone.
California has shipped out cattle before, but the current migration is far bigger and includes more of the state's breeding stock, which give birth to new calves and keep operations running year after year, said Jack Cowley, a rancher and past president of the California Beef Cattle Improvement Association.
That could be doing outsized damage to the nation's 18th-largest cattle herd, since California ranchers will have difficulty rebuilding once the drought breaks, said cattle ranchers and area livestock auctioneers.
"We spend a lifetime building the herd the way we want," said Cowley. Two weeks ago, he sold 18 percent of his breeding herd, or 200 cattle, to an operation in Nevada because he did not have enough water. He expects he will need to sell another 200 cattle.
"Now," Cowley said, "we've lost all that."
Beef prices already are at record highs, and increased transportation costs and rising uncertainty about where - and how many - future cattle will be raised and processed are adding upward pressure, industry analysts say.
The national cattle herd is at a 63-year low because high grain prices and drought during the past several years have encouraged producers to send animals to slaughter early and to reduce herd sizes.
There are some signs of change. In places where the drought has eased, or where ranchers are willing to gamble that rain will fall, some producers have started holding back breeding heifers and female calves from the slaughterhouses, according to government data released on Friday. But they are buying California cows, too.